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EXCLUSIVE: RI National Ground Zero for Unions

Thursday, March 10, 2011


The American Federation of Teachers is poised to unroll a $1 million to $2 million ad campaign to fight Providence Mayor Angel Taveras over the mass terminations of city teachers, sources tell GoLocalProv.

The substantial media buy could escalate a standoff that has already seized the national spotlight, making Rhode Island one of the key battlegrounds between unions and budget hawks determined to rein in deficits and unfunded pension liabilities.

“Unions will fight this war on as many fronts as they have to, regardless of whether it’s their ‘home turf,’” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at The Cook Political Report. “This is a battle about survival to them. It’s just that fundamental.”

Unlike other states, such as Wisconsin, where unions have battled conservative governors, Rhode Island is perceived as more union friendly and is among the most Democratic states in the country—making the confrontation between the teachers’ union and Taveras, a progressive Democrat, all the more unexpected.

One source familiar with the situation told GoLocalProv that the American Federation of Teachers had a substantial media buy scheduled to run last Sunday—but postponed it at the last minute amid 11th-hour negotiations between the city and the Providence Teachers Union, which is still hoping to work out an alternative to the terminations. In addition to the threat of a major publicity offensive, the union is also weighing a lawsuit if those talks don’t end in any resolution, according to the source.

‘It would be war’

As backdoor negotiations continued into the week, the city announced it would be delaying the announcement of which schools it will recommend for closure—news originally set to come out on Monday pf this week.

Guy Dufault, a retired publicist who has worked with labor unions, said the situation could escalate into an all-out PR war. “There’s no question the wholesale terminations were an attack on unions. You can’t deny that,” Dufault told GoLocalProv. “From a precedent-setting standpoint, if these terminations are then turned around and used to get rid of senior teachers, I think it would be war.”

“We are at the very start of a battle to redefine unionism in the country,” said state GOP chair Giovanni Cicione.

He said the American Federation of Teachers ad campaign is about maintaining the strength of the union. “There should be no question that unions are big business,” Cicione said. “What unions are defending is their product, which are the Rhode Island dues-paying members.”

Dufault rejected that as a “specious argument.” He said the real fight is between the haves and the have nots—rich Republicans and the workers the unions represent.

City official: ‘A distraction’

Dufault said he expects that any ad campaign would focus on the real reasons for why some city schools are failing—such as socioeconomic factors and the education level of parents. One source familiar with the campaign said it would be modeled on the television spots that aired last year when all the teachers at Central Falls High School were fired.

A spokeswoman for Taveras last night described the potential ad campaign as a “distraction.”

“We cannot afford to be distracted by rumors or PR campaigns,” said Melissa Withers. “We have a fiscal crisis to reckon with and we will forge ahead with the same honesty and transparency that we’ve demonstrated since taking office on January 3.”

Battleground state?

Not everyone is sure that Rhode Island could become the next battleground state for union rights like Wisconsin has. “I’m keeping my eye on it but I hope Rhode Island is not in the mood for stuff like this,” said J. Michael Downey, President of Council 94 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Workers.

Ed Pacheco, the state Democratic chairman, said he is confident that Taveras and the union can work towards a resolution—and he rejected any comparison with Wisconsin. “I don’t see it as the same instance,” Pacheco said. “We have a mayor who believes in organizing and collective bargaining which is completely different than the principles of the governor of Wisconsin.”

As for the next battleground state, Duffy said Florida—where union advocates warn that deep budget cuts are threatening collective bargaining—is more likely to come to the forefront than Rhode Island. At the state level, she said Governor Lincoln Chafee is not confronting unions. “While Chafee proposed that public employees pay more for their benefits, he didn’t threaten unions – either in terms of dollars or policy—quite the way they’ve been threatened in other states,” Duffy said.

Of course, it’s been a different story for Taveras, but his office has said the mass terminations were necessary to meet a March 1 state deadline for notifying teachers of possible changes to their employment. Because the budget was not done, termination letters were sent to all teachers.

“I’m sure the AFT believes those letters set a bad example and they’d like to communicate their willingness to fight both to Providence and to other jurisdictions,” Duffy said.

A spokeswoman for national AFT President Randi Weingarten did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.


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